Inclusive Bridges: A Long Journey, An Unfinished Road

Picture of Gareth Southgate first pumping with England players in red strip behind in various poses.

On a balmy evening in July, I went to the National Theatre to watch a riveting production of "Dear England". As a 70-plus-year-old wheelchair user, the play served to remind me of the journey we have undertaken, as a society, towards inclusion and the many more miles we must travel.

"Dear England" struck a chord, suggesting parallels with the trials and tribulations of the England football players and the hurdles I and countless others have faced over so many decades. 

Half a century earlier, I could not have seen this play. Theatres were not built with wheelchair users in mind, and the lack of physical access was a daunting barrier. The exclusion was not just about the physicality of accessing buildings; it was an emblem of the broader societal attitude. Disabled individuals, like myself, were often unable to fully participate in life's grand drama. On the fringes, we were spectators unable to access education, employment, and leisure activities, like anyone else.

This exclusion posed a two-fold loss. First, there was a profound personal loss. Imagine the numerous plays unseen, concerts unheard, classrooms unvisited, and jobs unsecured. This isn't simply about missed opportunities but about the dignity and fulfilment that comes from full participation in society. 

Second, society as a whole paid a heavy price for our absence. Every individual brings a unique perspective and enriches the collective tapestry of our culture, economy, and community. When disabled people are left out, society loses out on the diversity of thought, creativity, and resilience that could contribute to its growth and evolution. 

But the landscape has changed over the past fifty years, for which I am profoundly grateful. Laws have been enacted, attitudes have shifted, and infrastructures have been adapted. Yet, there is still a way to go. 

What we need now is for society to go beyond mere accessibility. We need an emphasis on inclusivity, where people of all abilities are considered an integral part of the fabric of society. This should be reflected in our education systems, our workplaces, our media, and our public spaces.

Firstly, education needs to be fully inclusive. By incorporating an inclusive curriculum that covers disability history, rights, and culture, we can promote empathy, understanding, and respect from a young age. Furthermore, making schools physically accessible ensures disabled children get the same opportunities as their peers. 

Secondly, workplaces must not just provide accessibility but actively seek to hire and promote disabled individuals. Encouraging diversity and fostering an inclusive culture is morally right and has proven beneficial to the business.

People drinking in bar includes men and women, a women in a wheelchair people of colour a man with a prosthetic leg
In media representation, disabled individuals must be portrayed accurately and authentically. This not only breaks down stereotypes but also provides role models for young disabled individuals. 

Finally, while we have made progress in making public spaces more accessible, there are still many barriers that need to be removed. Not just physical but also attitudinal barriers that can make these spaces so unwelcoming for disabled people.

By ensuring disabled people are included in all aspects of life, we can bring about a society that values every citizen. A society where the contributions of all its members are celebrated and valued is a more prosperous, more vibrant society. A society where every play can be seen, every concert heard, and every voice matters. That is the world I dream of and the one we must strive for.


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